Staff Sergeant Josh Parker, a West Plains native, and military working dog Winner K373 pause for a photo at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio during specialized search dog training. Parker was paired with the Labrador retriever during the course, and the two were sent to Iraq to serve. Winner K373 was later retired after nine months of service at Kandahar Air Field and other locations in Iraq, and Parker adopted him. The dog died of medical issues a few years ago, Parker said. Parker, a retired soldier diagnosed with mental health issues including post traumatic stress disorder, is on a mission to find answers for himself and other combat veterans navigating the legal system and veterans services, especially those at risk of suicide and homelessness.  

West Plains native and Army combat veteran Joshua Parker is a man on a new mission: finding answers for himself and other veterans in the face of seemingly inadequate resources available to veterans suffering from mental illness.

According to Parker, current veterans health services offer an inadequate response to, and treatment and recognition of mental disorders caused by military service, which are on par with physical injuries.

Parker enlisted with the National Guard in 1997 and joined the Army in 1999. In December, he would have completed 20 years of service. He served tours in the Middle East, but says he exhibited patterns of misconduct during his service, including substance abuse, that should have pointed to a bigger problem.

Instead, he says, he was returned to duty. About halfway through his service, Parker filed for bankruptcy and in 2013, he says, his personal life took a “bad turn.” 

In 2016 Parker was sent to a civilian psychiatric hospital called Four Winds in New York state. There, he was tested and referred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. At Walter Reed, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and anxiety.

His medical discharge was in March 2017, and he was placed on a temporary disability retirement list, meaning he would be returned to active service if he was later found fit for duty. In February 2019, he was officially medically retired, having reached the rank of staff sergeant.

His bipolar disorder was not officially diagnosed until Dec. 5.

Parker was two years from serving 20 years in the military and getting the full retirement benefits that come with two decades of service when he learned he had been put on the permanent disabled/retired list.

He is getting partial retirement benefits, instead.

Last year he was treated at Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in St. Louis, where doctors told him he was suffering from anxiety, and has also been to Camp Hope in Houston, Texas, a facility and resource organization offering legal, mental health, housing, financial assistance, spiritual guidance and counseling services to combat veterans suffering from PTSD and their family members.

He is 39 years old and physically able to work, but due to his mental illness needs work conditions tailored to him. He admits that is a pretty tall order for most employers.

He has not had a reportable income since 2017, he says.

He has been denied social security disability benefits, and has retained a lawyer to handle that case.

He still copes with the frustration of trying to find a lawyer willing to help him file a lawsuit against the military, on the claim that the PTSD caused by his service could have been prevented had he been effectively screened for bipolar disorder when he enlisted 20 years ago.

Post traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone that has experienced, directly or indirectly, a shocking, dangerous or frightening event, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Most people that experience a traumatic event will not develop PTSD, but having a history of mental illness increases the likelihood, according to mental health experts.

Symptoms of PTSD among combat veterans were first recorded during the Civil War and called “shell shock” and “battle fatigue” during the World War I and World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Even so, PTSD was not added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental illness until 1980, based on research that showed a link between PTSD and combat trauma.      

“Twenty-two victims a day lost to veteran suicides,” Parker muses. “Why aren’t these things getting fixed?”

Parker has been on a journey over the last two years that has been disheartening, frustrating and overwhelming on just about every front.

“People tell me ‘Stand up, your voice matters,’ then turn around and tell me ‘You are just one man,’” he says.

He is still trying to manage his bipolar disorder. He says he finds medical cannabis helps him strike the best balance between being too medicated to function mentally and medicated enough to treat symptoms like insomnia.

That, however, presents another problem. Since it is still federally illegal, the Veterans Administration will not cover the cost of medical marijuana as a treatment, and in Missouri there are no dispensaries yet open. Licenses are expected to be awarded by the Department of Health and Senior Services on Jan. 24.

When he was on two medications specifically for bipolar disorder, two to treat his insomnia and one for anxiety, Parker says he “couldn’t function as a human being.”

Bipolar disorder used to be called “manic depression” because of the wild swings between emotional highs and lows sufferers can experience.

According to NIMH, symptoms during a “manic” episode can include rapid speech on a variety of topics, feeling very energized, jumpy or irritable and having racing thoughts or engaging in risky behaviors.

Symptoms of depressive episodes can include feeling hopeless and sad, speaking very slowly and being forgetful, and having a decreased or absent interest in normally pleasant activities, called anhedonia.

Though he served in the Middle East and had given over 18 years of service when he was discharged, Parker says he doesn’t feel like a hero any more because of how his mental illness affects him and his daughters.

“My heroes are the ones sleeping on the street that haven’t given up,” Parker says, acknowledging there are veterans that are homeless and, like him, still searching for answers.

Parker understands and accepts his condition, while treatable, is not curable, but he still finds good reason to hang on for his daughters. There is a possibility he could have passed on his bipolar disorder, which has a genetic component, to his children. 

Researchers say no one gene causes the disorder, but a link has been found between having a parent or sibling with the disorder and an increased likelihood of developing it, according to NIMH. 

“I could be one of the 22, but I refuse to,” he adds with determination. He has bolstered that sentiment with plans for the future.

He would love to be able to make a home to come back to while traveling the country doing volunteer work for families of veterans, for example. 

And though he doesn’t feel like one himself, Parker would like to be known as a veteran helping heroes.

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